De-peoplising development
Putting people last

by Dayan Jayatilleka
As producers and consumers, the people are central to the economic system. But paradoxically, they are peripheral to economic policy. That asymmetry constitutes the fault-line along which social landmines are buried. So long as those who are central to the functioning of the economic structure are peripheral to the policy regime; so long as the policy regime is not brought in line with the actual functioning of the system, that system will be inherently volatile, conflicted, crisis-prone.

Premadasa used the term ‘peoplisation’ (‘janathakaranaya’). Its original context was the de- statisation of ownership, which however, didn’t result in orthodox privatisation. But for Premadasa, the term ‘peoplisation’ was also paradigmatic. It wasn’t simply a question of ‘adjustment with a human face’, which is what the PA in 1994, at its most benign and (Richard) jolly, regarded as desirable. Peoplisation was a code-word for the object of policy. The raising of the living standards and life chances of the majority of people particularly the poor, was regarded by Premadasa as the central objective of policy. In that sense it was the actualisation of the Clinton slogan, before Clinton’s team coined it: ‘Putting People First’.

This then was the secret of the Premadasa economic miracle - not merely efficiency and discipline. He resolved the contradiction between people as central to the functioning of economic system and peripheral to policy formulation. He brought discourse and policy into line with structural reality.

Since the assassination of Premadasa, there has been a de-peoplisation of development, in terms of policy paradigm, and strategy. Both Government and Opposition leaderships today subscribe to a de facto policy of ‘Putting People Last’. And no policy outlook which puts the economy first and the people last, can be successful even in economic terms, over time. Not in the global South.

There were two sets of reasons, global and local, that caused the de-peoplising of development. Internationally, the collapse of the USSR, the cessation of liberation struggles, the retrenchment of Marxism, the enthronement of unipolarity. All this resulted in the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, which is but ‘free market fundamentalism’ (as Eric Hobsbawm put it). Nationally, the decapitation by the LTTE of those politicians who belonged in varying degrees to this country’s mainstream developmentalist/quasi-welfarist reformist tradition. This left the two parties in the hands of leaders who were very different from their predecessors.

Those predecessors (and their officials) were committed to the goal of ‘national development’. They had a Sri Lankan perspective. Not that they were ignorant of world affairs, indeed they were far more aware of international events and trends, had a clearer conception of this country’s role in the world and were more assertive internationally, than their younger successors. They also believed, however erroneously, that they were working for the welfare of the country and the people. Today’s leaders have junked any notion of ‘development’ in favour of a narrowly ‘technicist’ and ‘corporate sector’ conception of the economy. Little wonder then that the unlettered DS Senanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa, three lawyers - JR Jayewardene, Gamani Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, and a historian - Ronnie de Mel, had a far surer grasp of this country’s economic potentials than all of today’s brightest MBAs put together.

There are however, reasons to believe that intersecting contexts, global (since 1991) and local (since 1993), that led to the de-peoplisation of development, maybe changing.

Internationally - the world economic crisis, the global war waged by fundamentalist terror and the global war against terror. The world-systemic response is initially military and diplomatic but as the conflict becomes protracted it will become evident that the socio-economic issues will have to be recognised as well. (Mahathir Mohammed reiterated as much, commenting on neoliberal globalisation, at the just concluded APEC summit.) The reality is that when the deprived and disadvantaged feel that the free market, the economy, is impervious to their needs, then they, or a sufficiently effective minority of them, seek to offset their weaknesses in the free market by bringing extra-economic factors into play. Their idea of a corporate raid was to slam two passenger planes into the World Trade Centre. They attempted to level the playing field by levelling the Twin Towers. Free-market fundamentalism breeds anti-market fundamentalism. Terrorism is the ‘shock therapy’ of the desperate.

The local factor that may force a reconsideration of economic policy perspectives is the rejuvenation of the JVP. Historically the JVP was always a catalyst- and even a perverse propellant - for policy reform on the part of Lankan administrations and politicians. 1971 impacted on the UF (so-called land reforms), shifted the opposition UNP to the centre, and radicalised Premadasa. Janasaviya and the land redistribution under the Presidential Land Task Force were responses to the Second Southern insurrection. Today the JVP constitutes a strong Left in parliament and increasingly in the trade unions. Whether they remain within the system or are pushed out and return to armed anarchism, they will be a player, a factor, a critical variable. In whichever incarnation, the pressure they exert on the system may inadvertently reopen space for bringing the people’s issues back onto the policy agenda. Checks and balances are desirable not only in a liberal democratic political system but also in a market economy.

The PA-JVP MoU didn’t work because it was a defensive rearguard action of populist measures, tacked onto the PA, the mainline policy agenda of which was entirely different. The PA’s policy regime had a market-fundamentalist logic which went against the logic of the MoU. In macroeconomic terms it couldn’t have worked. The JVP stayed too far out in left field for too long, while the PA had gone too far out in right field. The JVP had shifted too little too late from its dogmatic economic platform. For its part the PA had gone too far too fast from its ‘balanced economy’ (‘thulanarthikaya’) line of the 1993-4 manifesto, a line based on Lal Jayewardene’s study of the social indicators following or, more correctly, despite the ‘second wave’ of reforms. (His subsequent contribution, on Indo-Lanka trade, was quite ill-considered). Ronnie de Mel, the only personality who may have been able to reconcile, balance or at least juggle the IMF and the JVP, was not given the chance to do so, by a President whose false consciousness as an ‘ economic wizard’ (taken together with her Norwegian dalliance) is coming back to haunt her now.

The economy will deteriorate at a slower pace, and may even show signs of resuscitation, if the UNP wins this election. Short-term to be sure, and perhaps even superficial, but things are so disastrous that this is not to be scoffed at - and must be welcomed. The UNP contains within it a number of personalities who can, in the event of an opposition victory, manage the economic crisis in such a manner as to be mindful of national assets and mass living standards. Such representatives of the UNP’s developmentalist traditions are chiefly Karunasena Kodituwakku and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, and include Sajith Premadasa and Sarath Ranawaka. But will they be in charge of the macroeconomy?

No economic policy which regards the revival of the economy on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizenry on the other, as a zero-sum game or a trade-off, is sustainable. Neither the global nor the local changes discussed here mean that existing governments and policy elites will automatically re-position themselves in a manner more beneficial to the people. What it does mean is that the context in which the people were kept out, is being fissured; opening up the possibility of re-inserting the needs and demands of the people into the policy agenda, thereby re- programming economic policy.